Being Healthy on a Budget

Organic fruits and vegetables are healthy, but also cost more.  However, you don’t have to buy everything organic.  Below are two lists to keep handy when shopping for produce so you can maximize your budget.

The Dirty Dozen: 12 Foods to Eat Organic

  1. Peach
  2. Apple
  3. Bell Pepper
  4. Celery
  5. Nectarine
  6. Strawberries
  7. Cherries
  8. Kale
  9. Lettuce
  10. Grapes
  11. Carrot
  12. Pear

Clean 15: Lowest in Pesticides

  1. Onion
  2. Avocado
  3. Sweet Corn
  4. Pineapple
  5. Mango
  6. Asparagus
  7. Sweet Peas
  8. Kiwi
  9. Cabbage
  10. Eggplant
  11. Papaya
  12. Watermelon
  13. Broccoli
  14. Tomato
  15. Sweet Potato

Credit: Environmental Working Group

Saving for a Sick Day

When it comes to your health, every penny counts.  Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) can help you build up a “sick day” fund, and, because eligible contributions and distributions are tax free, get more mileage for each buck you set aside for your health.

HSAs were created by law in 2003, and are available for individuals with a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP), whether an HMO, PPO, or any other health plan, that does not cover the first dollar spent.  A person who is covered by Medicare or who can be claimed as dependent by someone else cannot make contributions to a HSA.

Eligibility for contributing to an HSA is determined regardless of income, but the value of the deductible that defines a plan as an HDHP and the maximum annual contribution are adjusted to inflation on a yearly basis.  For 2009, an individual health plan is qualified as HDHP if it has a minimum deductible of $1,150 and a maximum deductible and other out-of-pocket expenses of $5,800 (or $2,300 and $11,600, respectively, for a family plan).  If your plan qualifies, you can contribute up to $3,000 to an HSA this year ($5,800 as a family), and, importantly, if you qualify to make contributions to your HSA, family members and other people may contribute to it on your behalf.

If you are covered by an HDHP during only some months of the year, you may make contributions to an HSA during those months (your maximum contribution will be essentially pro-rated – see the instructions to filing the IRS Form 8889 to find out how).  Alternatively, under the “last month rule,” if you are eligible to make a contribution during the last month of the tax year (generally December 1-31), you may be considered eligible for the entire year.  Be careful when invoking this rule, however, as it puts you in a “testing period” where you have to be eligible during the next 12 months as well to avoid any penalties (more eligibility and contribution rules are outlined in the IRS’s Publication 969).

For tax purposes, HSAs work similarly to 401(k)s.  You and your employer may contribute pre-tax dollars, and, as long as you use the funds for qualified medical expenses, they are tax-free.  If you are self-employed, or if you choose to make contributions on your own, the contribution, up to the limit defined above, can be deducted from your income tax.  There is no exhaustive list of “qualified medical expenses,” but it includes any expenses that would have been considered deductible had you reached your insurance’s minimum, and is extended to cover non-prescription drugs and eye glasses, regardless of whether you have vision coverage or not.

If you are eligible, ask your employer about HSAs.  According to the Kaiser Foundation’s most recent Health Benefits Survey, 18-28% of large firms (200+ employees) and 11% of small firms (3-199 employees) offer HDHPs with savings options, but only 4% and 9% of eligible employees, respectively, are actually enrolled in them.  And several financial institutions offering 401(k) options can also have HSAs, so if your employer does not offer an HSA or if you are self-employed, check with your bank or credit union.  When you are sick, the last thing you need is to worry about the cost – with an HSA you can make sure that each dollar you put aside for your health will go right back to making you feel better.

Get a Gift for Transferring Your Drugs: a battle between pharmacies

Rite Aid and CVS are both giving $25 gift cards for each prescription transferred to their respective stores, as part of their efforts to draw in customers from each other.  Take advantage of that battle.

To get the deal, you should bring your empty prescription bottles/ boxes and present the coupon for a $25 gift card.  Click here and here for current CVS and Rite Aid coupons, respectively.  The Rite Aid coupon linked here expires on September 30, 2009 and the CVS one, on October 4, 2009.  But keep an eye out for newer coupons printed out with your receipts at CVS or Rite Aid or in newspapers or online – this promotion has been going on for months and is constantly being renewed.

There is no limit to how many CVS gift cards you can get, but Rite Aid limits its gift cards to 2.  The CVS deal is not valid fromNew York or New Jersey, while Rite Aid allows residents of New Jersey who are over 60 years of age to participate.

And there is no minimum purchase to get a $25 gift card.  Last week, for example, I took a prescription to CVS that cost me $10 and still got a $25 gift card (yes, CVS effectively paid me to get my prescription).  And at CVS, pay attention to the coupons you get with your receipt because some of them can also be used for new prescriptions.  When you are sick, these gift cards are at least one thing that can brighten your day.

The Score That Really Matters

While your SAT, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, or LSAT scores will cease to matter once you have graduated from college or graduate school, there is one score out there that will follow you the rest of your life: your FICO credit score.  This number is used by various parties,  from prospective landlords and employers to institutional lenders to insurance agencies, to determine your credit riskiness.  A higher score (850 is the maximum) shows that you are fiscally responsible, making you less likely to default on monthly payments.  This translates into lower interest rates and a higher credit line, and may mean you don’t have to give as much in security deposit or down payment.  Most people don’t go past 800, so any score above 750 is generally considered to be pretty good.

Your FICO credit score is calculated by weighing different types of credit data, such as payment history, amounts owed, length of credit history, number of recently opened accounts, and types of credit used.  Therefore, some of the easiest ways to improve your credit score is to pay your bills on time (even if just the minimum), lower the ratio of your outstanding debit to your credit limits, try to keep an older credit card active by using it to make a purchase every so often (even if the credit card doesn’t provide much rewards), and not open new credit cards that you don’t need.

Unfortunately, your credit report does not come with the score for free.  The best way to get your credit score is through www.myfico.com.  For $16, it will give you your credit score, tell you whether it is good or bad, and simulate how it may change.  And you should try to purchase your score from all three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) at least once, since each bureau calculates the score slightly different.